The Music in Montréal’s Soul

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Thursday Sep 22, 2011

This article is from the October 2011 issue of EDGE Digital Magazine.

Back before the bubble burst, when we were fantasizing about a tertiary residence in Montréal, we found ourselves in a residential sales office, talking to a fellow New Yorker, a classical violinist, who was moving permanently to Montréal because "this city has music in its soul."

That sentiment echoed in our ears throughout this year's edition of Divers/Cité, Montréal's annual weeklong summer music festival. Founded as Montréal's LGBT Pride celebration in 1993 on the principles of diversity, solidarity, and openness, Divers/Cité has subsequently evolved into an urban Burning Man festival that brings together tens of thousands of celebrants and music lovers from around the globe.

With nearly fifty hours of free outdoor parties and performances, Divers/Cité rivals the intensity of Winter Music Conference while channeling the love-fueled atmosphere of Woodstock - and the 19th anniversary of Divers/Cité proved yet again that it's all about the music: the music in Montreal's collective heart and soul.

For the past few summers, Sainte Catherine Street East has been closed to vehicular traffic from May through September. With the cars and cabs replaced with pedestrians, the backbone of Montreal’s gayborhood becomes a kind of Canadian piazza lined with terraces, pergolas, gazebos, and cafés. Restaurateurs up and down the street build out their eateries, outfitting the al fresco spaces with white picket fences or Italian furniture, Philippe Starck chairs, ambient lighting, lush flora, and hanging planters - and the convivial atmosphere is a perfect complement to the thousands of Divers/Cite patrons who wander up and down the street all day and night.

This year, in what was termed an "artistic happening," Sainte Catherine Street East was festooned with 170,000 pink resin balls dangling above the street and forming a pink pearl canopy from Berri Street to Papineau. Produced by landscape architect Claude Cormier, the installation was titled "Les Boules Roses" (or "Pink Balls") and the roseate glow made the street even more gay than the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City.

Aptly named, Divers/Cité is one of the most beloved of Montreal’s forty annual festivals with programming that includes a range of music as diverse as Montreal’s population, including dance, blues, jazz, electronica, trance, techno, deep house - and, of course, vocals. By the time we hit Saturday’s Sunset Party at Parc Emilie-Gamelin, DJ Paulo (aka LA’s Lord of the Drums) was tag-teaming with Montreal heartthrob, DJ Alain Jackinsky, and their turbo-charged, tribal-injected set perfectly paved the way for Brazilian bombshell DJ Ana Paula (returning to Divers/Cite for her fifth consecutive appearance) and DJ Isaac Escalante, the two of whom turned out a multi-layered, euphoric performance that was as inspirational as it was vibrant.

Without question, one of the most popular events during Divers/Cite’s weeklong reign over the city is Mascara, the annual three-hour, gender-bending tour de force, hosted by Montreal’s resident drag diva extraordinaire, Mado. Thousands of people gather for this event, whole families in tow, along with lounge chairs and video cameras - and rarely have you witnessed so many people so happy to laugh and cheer and sing along with a man in a dress. And those dresses! Mado and his costumers combed the closets of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and raided the recent Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition to create ensembles that were as surreal as the lovechild of Tim Burton and Salvador Dali.

Inspired by "Glee" and "So You Think You Can Dance," this year’s 14th edition of Mascara was almost immediately legendary, thanks to nearly thirty musical numbers (performed by more than two hundred dancers) that were as brilliantly executed as a Broadway production. These kids can move - and shake and bump and grind - and choreographer Scott Fordham, a terpsichorean dynamo, is another one of those immensely talented Montreal artists who makes you realize the point of long Montreal winters (practice, practice, practice). While Fordham has performed with and choreographed for Deborah Cox, Katy Perry, LL Cool J, among others, his home is Montreal and there was no question that he and his incredibly tight corps of dancers were as loved as they are talented. Bring these kids to New York!

Few cities in North America are more civil than Montreal - and particularly to LGBT people. ??During the past decade, Montreal has earned a reputation as one of the world’s best LGBT destinations - and after spending time in Canada’s second-largest city, it’s easy to understand why (and it’s not only because Montreal’s original name was Ville-Marie or "City of Mary").??

In 2005, Canada was one of the first countries to offer full legal rights of marriage to LGBT people - while way back in 1967, it was Pierre Trudeau, the Minister of Justice, who astutely remarked, "There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." (Contrast that statement with the 1986 US Supreme Court decision in Bowers vs. Hardwick, which was not overturned until 2003 - and you have a better understanding of why Canada, and Montreal, have a history of social progress that puts the US to shame.)??


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Recently designated a UNESCO City of Design, Montreal received the award for its citywide emphasis on talent, tolerance, diversity, and technology - all factors that enable a plurality of values and overall inclusiveness of its citizenry. The 2006 honor takes on even more resonance when you realize that Berlin and Buenos Aires are the only other recipients of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network award.

The climax of Divers/Cite’s seven-day festival is la Grande Danse, the largest, free outdoor dance event in North America. Commencing in the afternoon, the ten-hour, open-air dance extends nearly half a mile and continues long past sunset. Noting the pervasive popularity of the Iberican sound, this year’s Grande Danse DJs included an entire roster of Spanish superstars, among them members of the New Iberican League, David Penn, Abel Ramos, and Pablo Ceballos, all three of whom delivered booty-shaking sets that kept the crowd roaring their enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, over at Parc Emilie Gamelin, DJ Lady Miss Kier was hostessing Le Grand Bal with her inimitable Deee-Lite-ful shenanigans. Lead singer of Deee-Lite, the 1990s hothouse sensation, Lady Miss Kier threw down a crowd-pleasing funky groove that mixed classic Candi Staton tracks with a deep house vibe. The Lady has body and soul!

Apart from the abundance of free music all over the Village, Divers/Cite has also been justly celebrated for its technical brilliance. Massive video screens spanned the street, projecting a simulcast of the crowd and the performances, while the lighting on the stage and along la Grande Danse was as colorful as the rainbow dancers on which it flashed.

For years, "All Together Different" has been Divers/Cite’s tagline, a motto that addresses the import of both individualism and community - and nowhere is that more happily expressed than on the dance floor during Divers/Cite. "I’m liking this vibe," said DJ Alyson Calagna, who was playing the final party at Stereo on Monday morning ("A temple of sound," in her words - and perfect for her musical message). "Some cities just get it right," she said, noting the pervasive happy atmosphere that has become a hallmark of Divers/Cite. Of course, at least some of that soulful atmosphere is attributable to the legions of upbeat volunteers, all working alongside the inspired leadership of Divers/Cite’s General Director, Suzanne Girard. In the words of a would-be U.S. President, it takes a village - of volunteers.

By the time the sun set on la Grande Danse, DJ Ceballos was ratcheting the energy to the sky with a bottom-heavy, soul-shaking beat that had thousands of dancers cheering, arms in the air, sweaty and happy, smiling in the night. And it was somewhere around then that we found ourselves thinking again about that violinist and his comment about Montreal’s musical soul.

Next year marks Divers/Cite’s 20th anniversary. Come celebrate our diversity in a city that lets us make beautiful music together.


Where to Stay:

Gouverneur Hotel Place Dupuis: As the host hotel for numerous editions of Divers/Cite, as well as BBCM’s Black and Blue, the Gouverneur has been, for many years, the command center for all things gay. To stay at the Gouverneur during a circuit weekend or Pride festival is a little like being on an all-gay cruise, where breakfast is a feast of table-hopping and eavesdropping, as everyone conducts post-mortems about the night before.

If these walls could talk - which is one good reason why the hotel’s 352 rooms are newly-renovated. The four-star Gouverneur looks better than ever - and particularly the 59 rooms on the Business floors.

Located on the private executive floors (you must key the elevator) atop the thirty-story building, the Gouverneur’s Business Rooms are spacious, modern aeries, with massive movie screen windows overlooking the city or the St. Lawrence river. The hotel’s west side affords a bird’s eye view onto the Parc Emilie-Gamelin (site of Divers/Cite’s Sunset Party and Le Grand Bal) directly below - and at night, Montreal’s skyline shimmers like a disco ceiling.

Not to put ideas into your head, but the walk-in glass shower could easily hold six. Don’t linger too long - or you’ll miss the hearty breakfast buffet served at the Gouverneur’s in-house restaurant, le Vignoble. If you park yourself at a table overlooking Sainte Catherine Street, you’ll be witness to the Walks of Shame of all your friends crawling out of Stereo at ten a.m. Bring your camera and cackle with delight as you fortify yourself with fresh fruit and pancakes, as well as baked beans and fried potatoes, for another day of Montreal music.

There’s also a fitness center, as well as a pool, which enables you to exercise (and ogle) to your heart’s content.

The staff at the Gouverneur is friendly and helpful (and easy on the eye), working to insure that you feel as comfortable at the hotel as you would at home - or on a gay cruise, for that matter. Perfectly located at the entrance to the Village, the Gouverneur is as welcoming as the rainbow flag.

LINK: Gouverneur for Divers/Cite
Gouverneur Hotel


(Feature article continues on next page: Where to Eat, What to Do, What to See, Where to Shop, Getting There...)

Opus Hotel: Partially housed in an historic 1914 Art Nouveau building (the first poured concrete edifice in North America), the Opus Hotel’s newer half features a completely contemporary concrete addition designed by Dan Hanganu and award-winning interior designer, Yabu Pushelberg. The result is a fascinating interplay between classic and modern, a dynamic which nicely mirrors Montreal’s signature aesthetic. ??

Located on the corner of Sherbrooke and St. Laurent, the Opus is strategically situated at the crossroads of several neighborhoods: minutes from Old Montréal, the Gay Village, and the Plateau Mont-Royal - and a short walk to Holt Renfrew (the Bergdorf’s of Montreal) as well as Montreal’s Musee des Beaux Arts.

With 136 guest rooms furnished in dark woods, velvet and silk fabrics, and toiletries by L’Occitane, the Opus is an amalgam of boutique experience and Ancien Regime. The sumptuous rooms provide ample space for the accumulation of shopping bags from St. Laurent’s numerous second-hand stores, designer boutiques, and eclectic shops. As for the staff, in keeping with Montreal’s reputation for civility, they are as gracious as they are helpful - and a reminder that politeness aligns perfectly with kindness.

The sister hotel to the Opus Hotel Vancouver (one of Conde Nast’s Traveler magazine’s Hot 100 Hotels), the Opus Hotel Montreal serves an urbane and cosmopolitan clientele with a mixture of panache and casual chic.

LINK: Opus Hotel Montreal

Hotel Gault: A bastion of almost ascetic minimalism, the Gault is a shrine for those who can’t abide clutter - anywhere. One of our favorite hotels in Canada, the Gault has thirty loft-style rooms, which enable residents to feel as if they’ve landed inside an issue of "Architectural Digest" (let’s face it - a wet dream for certain gay men...)

Both contemporary and comfortable, the Gault is located right off McGill Street in Old Montreal, with a stylish corner restaurant - and a staff that is one of the more polished and accommodating in all of Montreal. ? Sleek and chic, the Gault was the winner of TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Award in 2009.

LINK: Hotel Gault


Where to Eat:

Saloon: Just as they used to say about Rick’s in "Casablanca," so, too, does everyone show up at this restaurant, bar, and supper club in the heart of the Village.

For years, le Saloon has served a purpose similar to the Abbey in West Hollywood or the Palace in South Beach: it’s where everyone comes to have a good time. Whether you’re eating breakfast, brunch, or sipping sangria on the terrace, le Saloon has a rhythm all its own, with a signature soundtrack, thanks to the numerous DJs who use the restaurant’s booth as a second home.

The food is as good as the music, which means you’ll eat well on your way to or from the club - and come back for more. Everyone is adorable here, with the confidence of those happy to be working where everyone’s having fun.

LINK: Saloon

Olive + Gourmando: Walking around Old Montreal is addictive, although it’s sometimes difficult to discern where best to eat. Search for the cluster of people hanging outside this corner restaurant on St. Paul West: there’s a reason they’re waiting for a space inside.

Some of the best sandwiches in Montreal are served here, as well as some of the city’s most delicious soups and baked goods. There’s also excellent coffee. The vibe is cool: a melting pot of locals and tourists, happy to be whiling away an afternoon in Old Montreal.

LINK: Olive + Gourmando

Aux Vivres: Arguably, the most popular vegan restaurant in Montreal, this is a mecca for everyone who loves to eat. Originally opened in 1997, Aux Vivres’ newish locale on Montreal’s Main (St. Laurent) is filled with blond wood and white Formica tables.

On weekends, Aux Vivres teems with life, as the two-room restaurant fills with people enjoying some of the freshest food available in Quebec.
Think you’re not a vegan? Try the BLT, which gets its bacon flavor from smoked coconut, served in homemade chapati - and you might never want to eat a dead pig again.

LINK: Aux Vivres


What to See, What to Do, Where to Shop:

Priape: For the gays, no visit to Montreal is complete without a stop here. Named for Priapus, the Greek god of tumescence, Priape has been in business since 1974 offering every imaginable leather accoutrement, as well as the latest underwear du jour.

Party tickets are available, as is pornography in every medium. Located in the heart of the Village, the atmosphere at Priape is akin to a house party, with music blasting and boys shimmying into tight briefs and brief boxers - and on most nights, Priape is where the party commences.

LINK: Priape

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: As anyone who waited in line for "Savage Beauty," the recent Alexander McQueen retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum will attest, fashion is everything. Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts scored a similar coup in mounting the first international exhibition devoted to Jean Paul Gaultier, the celebrated French couturier who has dressed nearly every diva worshipped by the gays.

More of an installation than a retrospective, the current exhibition marks the 35th anniversary of Gaultier’s label with more than 140 ensembles in a multimedia mise en scène. Photographic works from Mario Testino, Cindy Sherman, Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Pierre et Gilles, and others are mixed with sketches, costumes, and film excerpts from runway shows, videos, and television to highlight the career of an artist known as much for his humanity as his technical virtuosity and aesthetic vision.

Madonna lent her "Blond Ambition" corsets. What more do you need to know?

Through 2 October 2011.

LINK: Jean Paul Gaultier at Museum of Fine Arts


(Feature article continues on next page: What to See, What to Do, Getting There...)

BBCM Events: Ever since 1991, when a few prominent gay Montreal activists and party boys got together and threw a fund-raising party to combat the toll of AIDS, BBCM (Bad Boy Club Montreal) has been one of the more prominent producers of all-night revels and bacchanals in a town globally known for parties.

In 2010, Black and Blue celebrated its twentieth anniversary, which means that this year Black and Blue turns 21. Come celebrate "Black Jack" Black and Blue 21, from the 5 - 11 of October, 2011.


Montréal LGBT Film Festival: Image & Nation: Slur the words slightly and you get: imagination, the name of Montreal’s international LGBT film festival, which features over 100 LGBT films.

27 October - 6 November 2011.

LINK: Image & Nation

Igloofest: Organizied by the boys behind Piknic Electronik, Igloofest is Montreal’s winter rave, served outdoors in Old Montreal. Back for its sixth edition, Igloofest attracts thousands of music fans over the last three weekends of January for a dance marathon on a floor of snow and slush with some of the world’s most popular DJs.?

LINK: Igloofest

Divers/Cite: The 20th anniversary of Divers/Cite happens during the week of 30 July - 5 August 2012. You’d be a fool not to be there.

LINK: Divers/Cite

LGBT Info: Montreal Tourism: Gay and Lesbian


Getting There:??

Air Canada: For years, Air Canada has been a proud and faithful sponsor for Divers/Cité, as well as Black and Blue and numerous other LGBT events and festivals in Montréal.

As their tagline commands, "Let yourself go," which is an admonition easy to adhere to when the flight from New York to Montréal is less than an hour. At forty-three minutes, this is one of those stress-free trips that restores your faith in commercial aviation.

Furthermore, Montréal’s Dorval Airport is one of the more modern and civilized in the world, yet another reason to "Let yourself go" - to Montréal.

LINK: Air Canada

Amtrak: While the train can take as long as ten hours from New York to Montreal, it’s quite a beautiful journey, particularly when viewed from the observation car. The Adirondack train travels daily from New York through the Hudson Valley to Albany and on through the Adirondack Mountains into Canada. Rates vary, but the train is cheaper than a plane - and sometimes as little as $62 one-way. ?

LINK: ?Amtrak


Montreal Divers/Cite Photo Album: Click here for Montreal Divers/Cite Photo Album


A long-term New Yorker and a member of New York Travel Writers Association, Mark Thompson has also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The author of the novels WOLFCHILD and MY HAWAIIAN PENTHOUSE, he has a PhD in American Studies and is the recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. His work has appeared in numerous publications.


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